Start Again? What is the way ahead for left politics in Britain?

By Geoff Gay

This article is based on a draft discussion paper, written in late December 2011, based on the premise that left politics in the UK is in need of some structure different from (or perhaps evolved from) the present ones, with particular reference to the role of the Labour Party.  After deliberation and discussion, particularly the excellent discussion at the Friday Room meeting “The Bradford Spring”, I now take the view that, although changing structures are important, the primary question is the one posed at that meeting, namely the question of balance between the Labour Party on the one hand and, on the other hand,

  1. the seemingly-inevitable-plethora of left parties and groups,
  2. new movements such as “Occupy”
  3. resurgent  trade unionism, focussing on opposing cuts and “austerity” with particular reference to pensions
  4. broad movements against particular manifestations of this government’s virulent neo-liberalism, such as “reforms” in the NHS and Education
  5. the gamut of organisations based on community, faith, environment, sexuality etc. etc. , not to mention
  6. the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, plus Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, which are all clearly well to the left of centre.

My point of view is informed by my membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1966 to its dissolution in 1991 (1), and of the Labour Party from 1993 to the present (including 12 years as a borough councillor in a ward with noticeable pockets of deprivation). About 35-40 years ago, the CPGB arrived at a formulation which it called “The Broad Democratic Alliance” in which it envisaged a growing alliance between all of those groups, as outlined above, whose objective interests are in opposition to our present form of capitalism based on the jungle of The Market dominated by huge global conglomerates and finance capital. In the “Bradford Spring” meeting, a few participants leaned more-or-less heavily towards “Labourism” , the view that all else is peripheral to achieving the hegemony of the Labour Party. But my conclusion, which I believe is more in tune with that of the majority of the meeting, including that of the guest speaker Wayne Muldoon , a member of the Respect National Council, is that we need a new broad democratic alliance which would include a transformed or at least transforming Labour Party.

There is also a view, with or without the Labour Party, that we need a new broad left political party. I will continue by considering the implications of this view:

In this context, a key question is, “To what extent would a new left party be based on a particular ideology, in the way that communist parties were based on Marxism or Scientific Socialism, or the way that the Green Party cannot shake off their view of the primacy of environmental issues?”

Given that, in our hegemonic society, the idea of a seizure of power by insurrection is laughable, there would be little point in a party that was unelectable. A new left party would need, sooner rather than later, to have a realistic chance of getting a significant body of MPs elected . But in the UK, the FPTP electoral system (2), renders achieving this from scratch extremely difficult.  Restriction to what would be seen as a narrow ideology would compound the difficulty. On the other hand, there would also be no point if the new party were as broad a church as the Labour Party, since it would have no distinctive role. It would not, at least initially, have any of the historical links – in particular, the close link to the trade union movement – from which the Labour Party benefits (or not? Would the lack of such links be an asset rather than a drawback?)

The SDP took off because it already had MPs, and it had the advantage that its purpose was to move the political centre of gravity to the right. In our hegemonic “liberal” capitalism, moving that centre to the left is hugely more difficult. Any new left party could not merely be built from below; a base within the existing polity would also be essential. But where is such a base coming from? As with the SDP, there would need to be substantial support from influential and leading figures in the Labour Party. I would not argue that achieving this is impossible, but I can see no signs of it at the moment.

About six years ago, I decided to join the pressure group Compass,  not because I thought it was the “ultimate answer” but because it seemed to me to be easily the nearest thing we had to the light at the end of the tunnel, a tunnel from which, for many years, there had seemed to be no light and no escape. The policy positions being developed by Compass have a coherent and consistent social democratic and anti-neo-liberal direction. In fact, I think they are in general very close to what a reincarnated CPGB would have been putting forward, not in terms of historical-term goals, but as real-politic alternatives to the relentless neo-liberalism which the leaderships of all three large “mainstream” parties now take as read. Numbers of fairly prominent politicians on what we would call “The Broad Left”, such as Jon Cruddas (Labour) and Caroline Lucas (Green), have associated themselves with Compass, alongside media figures like Polly Toynbee, John Harris and the Compass Chair, Neal Lawson. But there is also a tendency, apparently almost inevitable, for power to corrupt, in the political sense, a good example being Chuka Umunna who has noticeably shifted to the right since becoming an MP, and is now (surprise, surprise!) a front bench spokesperson. Compass supported Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership, as the best of a bad bunch. Miliband’s position can be described as a softer version of, rather than any real challenge to neo-liberalism. Although Compass still sees its single biggest task as contributing to the transformation of the Labour Party, it has, since January 2011, opened its membership without organisational restriction.

The next key question is, “How would any new left party be an advance on Labour?”

The Labour Party had Clause Four and still says that it is a “democratic socialist” party. But this “socialism” is, and always has been, a very different animal from the socialism that was defined in the CPGB programme “The British Road to Socialism”. And the Labour Party eschews ideology and historico-political theory, and so reduces itself to a pragmatic electoralism in which it is rarely sure what it wants to be elected for except to oppose the Tories.  It was formed to represent the working class in the legislature, but leaders with a working class background are the exception, (Ed M’s difficulty in looking like an effective Labour leader may have something to do with the plum in his mouth) and whatever the working class is now, it is not what it was either at the time of Labour’s formation or even what it was in my 60s and 70s political youth. Having said this, it is relevant to mention that the Labour Party has, in its organisational and financial links with the affiliated trades unions, a important characteristic (whether an asset or otherwise) not shared with any other party in the world. Although some trades unions have never been affiliated and some have disaffiliated, the link is still strong, and very significant financially. The unions still exert considerable influence in the Party generally, although the leadership, for fear of electoral negatives (under FPTP) has, particularly in the last 40+ years, been keen to distance itself from the TU association. claiming to lead a party for “all of the people” (even the filthy rich!) . From “In Place of Strife” (a 1969 Labour Government white paper -see Wikipedia article) onwards, they have effectively supported neo-liberal legislation designed to seriously limit the ability of unions to collectively defend and extend their members’ interests. (although it has to be said that the unions themselves could and should have acknowledged and rectified their own democratic deficit).

The Labour Party’s high point was the 1945-51 Atlee Government which, in spite of the strong right-wing influence(even then) and in spite of  (or, to some extent because of?) the aftermath of WWII, oversaw huge achievements in all key areas of society, with policies underpinned by a  Keynsian economic view which, for a further decade or so, even became the dominant consensus under a Tory government . But either side of this zenith, it has been timid and/or relatively ineffective. Under Wilson in the 60s it was diverted by silly slogans like “The White Heat of the Technological Revolution”, and, under Wilson and Callaghan in the 70s, while the Tory neo-liberals were busy plotting their assault, the Labour Party simply lost its way. Its reaction to the Thatcherite assault was at first, at least in general perception, fundamentalist, and then, at the opposite extreme, one of accepting neo-liberalism and in fact embracing and absorbing of it.

Is there any way to guarantee that any new broad left party would not go down a 21st-century version of these paths?  Rather than try to answer this, I will pose another, perhaps even more far-reaching question:  Will that matter if there is another zenith at least as hegemonic as the “post-war settlement”?

Thatcher triumphantly proclaimed that her aim was to “wipe socialism off the face of the political map”. Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron have continued and reinforced that project to the extent that even getting social democracy (let alone a fundamentally different society which Compass calls “The Good Society” or which had been defined as “Socialism”) back onto the centre stage of politics would be a massive achievement. A social democratic revolution would require a consensus akin to the “post-war settlement”, perhaps having its electoral expression in isolation of the Tories in the face of an overwhelming centre-left alliance. If that could be achieved, it would perhaps be even more agenda-setting than either 45-51 or the present neo-liberal consensus, in which case the new left formation will have done its job. We would at last not just be seeing the light but actually out of the tunnel in as permanent a way as we could presently envisage.

So how do we work to lay the foundations of such a “revolution” ?  I now believe that the diversity of our present society invalidates the idea that the left can, for the foreseeable future, work as an homogenous whole. When questioned as to whether Respect’s success in Bradford could be reproduced elsewhere, Wayne Muldoon replied that, in the immediate future, there were certainly pockets of possibility for Respect, just as there are for the Green Party and one or two other left groups. If at the next election, there were  handfuls of  Respect and Green MPs, a solid bloc of left-leaning Scottish, Welsh and Irish Nationalists, and perhaps one or two like-minded others, perhaps there would be the basis for a left alliance of the type we have seen in other countries of Europe and elsewhere ; perhaps this, together with a more pluralist Labour Party (and perhaps even a left breakaway from the Libdems, based on the Social-Liberal Forum) rather than the prospect of a new broad left party, could be the political core of a new Broad Democratic Alliance.

Geoff Gay    18.05.12.

Footnote 1

Former CPGB members are working (or not) in numerous milieux and organisations. The Party metamorphosed into Democratic Left, then New Times Network, renamed New Politics Network, which then merged with Charter 88 to become Unlock Democracy, and some former members are concentrating their political work there and/or in related reform movements, working alongside younger activists. Others are active in the Labour Party, in trades unions, in Compass, or, including myself, in some combination of these, and elsewhere. Our politics, once highly focussed and therefore, in spite of everything, disproportionately effective, is now dissipated, and only effective in limited ways and in fits and starts.
Is it possible or desirable that we, together with our natural successors, could re-assemble? Relevant to this, I have started to read “After The Party (Reflections on Life since the CPGB)” published by Lawrence and Wishart

Footnote 2

About a week before the AV referendum, in the middle of quite intensively campaigning for Yes, I realised that the campaign was worse than merely futile – it was a monumental error. Instead, the reform movement should have spent their time, resources and money on a campaign to expose the sham of a hastily-arranged referendum in which the only alternative to FPTP was an undemocratically and arbitrarily imposed system. The Tories would not have conceded the referendum had they thought they would be likely to lose it !
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5 Responses to Start Again? What is the way ahead for left politics in Britain?

  1. Andy B says:

    Most people are on some level selfish. there’s a general climate of entitlement and striving for ever more material possessions and wealth. In many cases without the desire to work hard for them. The public sector and “left” demanding protection of their pensions among them. People are living longer, a lot longer. Who is going to pay for the additional leisure time? is it fair that the tab is picked up by the next generation ( who have already lost out on education fees, housing, and in many cases work ). In fact the fair structure is to require people to pay in proportion to the income they desire to achieve with a minimum amount guaranteed by the government as a part of the welfare state. People have to accept that to fund a longer retirement they need to save more, or should everyone pay more tax to subsidise the pensions of the privileged few ( ie those on final salary pensions and early retirement ages)?

  2. John Greenwood says:

    What are political parties?

    It seems to me that the nature of political parties has changed and continues to change.

    50 years ago the answer would have been simple. The Labour party existed to look after the interests of working classes and the Conservative Party existed to look after the interests of the upper classes. Nobody bothered to ask what people actually wanted because this was seen to be obvious.

    Today it is very different. The connection between parties and particular social groups is blurred. Over the last few decades there has been a huge increase both in the amount of research undertaken to establish what people actually want (focus groups, surveys etc.) and also the public expectation that politicians ought to listen and anger when they don‘t.

    A party is a self-selected team of people, and their supporters, willing and able to form a government. I believe that most politicians are honest, hard-working and genuinely want to make the country a better place, but they have made politics their career and are strongly motivated to get elected. This leads inevitably to conflicts of interest.

    Electors seem to have an unquestioned belief that parties should have firm policies on a wide range of unconnected issues. We get a Party Line, which is meld of the, frequently disparate, ideals of individual party members, tempered by an assessment of what the electors will accept.

    Electors also believe that parties should be strong and unified. This leads to a sort of tribal behaviour; “My Party right or wrong”, a U-turn is a sign of weakness even when it is the wise thing to do and supporting another tribe is unforgivable.

    If constitutional issues about how parties are controlled are determined by the parties, members will be tempted to choose what gives them better career prospects rather than what is is in the national interest. This was amply demonstrated in the AV referendum.

    Parties live to gain power. They need that power to do their job. But once given power, they will fight to protect and extend it. This is not always in the national interest.

    What to do?

    • Change the expectations of electors.
    • Make the means of settling constitutional issues more robust against party interests for issues such as: the reform of the House of Lords, the voting system, party funding and the alignment of national and local parties.
    • Create a formal “standing mandate” whereby the electorate register what they want on particular issues, e.g. to adopt a particular voting system or to make a systematic reduction in inequality.
  3. Geoff Gay says:

    Obviously, we are not coming from opposing standpoints, but I can start the discussion by highlighting some issues of concern :

    There are places where I think you should (i) be a bit less black-and-white i.e. qualify what you say and define terms e.g. what is “a better place” ? what is “power” ? (ii) be more specific e.g. what do mean by “change the expectation of electors” ?

    I feel that your schemes need much thinking through e.g. how would you ensure that your “standing mandate” is from a representative sample, noting that pollsters are already good at this.

    If by “party line” you mean what is put forward by the leadership, I don’t think that has much to do with “ideals”. People talk about “party” in the sense of the leadership as if that were the same thing as the party as a whole i.e. the mass of membership, whereas, within any given party, there are numerous layers of activity or otherwise, influence or otherwise.

    “What the electorate want” can often be misinformed, prejudiced and simplistic. We have, and have to have, a representative (quasi-) democracy, and a society as complex as ours could not function on the basis of direct democracy

    Even the “top two” parties can increasingly not expect to form a government on their own.

  4. John Greenwood says:

    Geoff, This answers some of your points, perhaps indirctly

    Decisions have consequences. The bad side effects of a particular decision can frequently outweigh the good direct effects. We delegate the complex business of working out the best combination of decisions to the governments we elect.

    The problem is that this is not obvious to the electors and indeed to new politicians. Promises can be made that seem simple but have difficult side effects. This is also the reason that direct government, by referendums and opinion polls, is a problem; the vast majority of voters are not in a position to consider consequences.

    This leads to the idea of a “standing mandate”, which is a means by which every voter can record their views on particular issues on a permanent register.

    The idea would be to design the questions so that the voters are exposed to at least some of the consequences, so for example questions about support for the NHS would be linked to the tax implications.

    You are right that this a scheme that needs much thinking through. Maybe it should be the subject of a new post, leaving this one to discuss your other concerns.

  5. An underlying weakness of democracy is that it tends to be dominated by the unthinking masses being swayed by the loudest rhetoric rather than informed citizens making considered judgements. This has been recognised and bemoaned right from the beginning of democracy in ancient Greece.

    I think this is an important reason for a general apathy for politics. For myself, it is the reason why I have never been keen to get involved. I found it just too depressing. I got involved in the AV campaign expecting that it would involve discussion about the relative merits of different systems. Some hope!

    For me the way forward is in improving the democratic process in ways that make it more dependent on reason rather than demagogy.

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